The Odds Were Against Me: Ken’s Story
As a police officer, Ken Collins was trained to dodge bullets, so to speak. As a military veteran who served in Iraq, and a volunteer responding to the historic 9-11 disaster, he thought he’d been through some rough stuff. Then there was cancer.
He never asked, “Why me?” In fact, Ken says, “If it had to be someone, why not me? I had attitude, I saw the bad side of life in my profession, I smoked, and I was exposed to toxins at the World Trade Center. The odds were against me.” What he didn’t wager on, was the kind of cancer that arrested him, and the trials that would follow his diagnosis and test his resilience as a tough guy.
Ken’s articulate personality and physically fit body camouflages the oral cancer that changed his life, a chronicle that started in 2007 when he thought he contracted tongue thrush.
“I took an antibiotic for a mouth rash before being deployed in 2008,” he recalls. “My tour of duty was cut short from a leg injury. The pain medication for my leg masked the oral pain which would have normally caused greater concern. For two years I battled flare ups, and something like a cold sore that just wouldn’t go away.”
Even Ken’s regular dental visits missed the signs through lack of proper mouth screening. In early 2010 when an overseas job offer prompted a thorough check up, Ken sought examination by an oral surgeon, since the spot on his tongue was now painful to the touch. The surgeon confirmed a tumor, which by then was the size of Ken’s thumb.
“I had the awful gut feeling that the biopsy would come back as cancer. I just knew it.”
He hated when people would say, “Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing,” or “You’re going to be fine.” Friends meant well, but their gallant humor or sterile comments weren’t what Ken needed.
In August 2010, the verdict came back as cancer.
“I asked the surgeon about my odds, and he told me not to think about the odds, and that I had no time to waste.” So Ken had surgery right away, which also revealed that the cancer had already spread to his lymph nodes.
Ken took the necessary steps to prepare for the worst, while he hoped for the best. He got organized, planned his own funeral, and thought he was equipped. But he wasn’t ready for the harsh impact cancer would have on his family.
“I was so focused on the logistics, and consumed with my own health. I didn’t know there was a place like the Cancer Support Community. Cancer did a lot of damage. My family, especially my kids, could have used this kind of support and a place where they could talk about what they were going through.”
Ken opted not to have chemotherapy or radiation. He has had four surgeries to remove the affected lymph nodes and areas of his mouth, and to rebuild his tongue. He admits to reading everything there is to know about oral cancer, and is an advocate for proper screening by dental offices.
With an easy smile and a revitalized demeanor, Ken shared that he’s thankful to have a second shot in life, but is reminded every day of the struggle.
“I still have a long recovery ahead. Lengthy conversations are brutal, because I have to compensate with my speech. I have no taste buds anymore, and it always feels like I have a crumbled piece of paper in my mouth. But I feel healthy! I don’t smoke anymore, and I do what I can to help others. I have a strong mindset and a renewed commitment to taking better care of myself.”
During his time on the police force, Ken enjoyed working with a talented K9 partner named Billy. Sadly, the beautiful black Labrador later died from cancer, an irony Ken thinks about often. Ken now has a new furry companion – a beagle named Bella. “She’s so cute, especially when she cuddles up as if to say, ‘You okay, Daddy?’”
Ken believes his recovery is credited to divine intervention and good medical treatment, and that he didn’t give up. He encourages others to reach out to find resources like the Cancer Support Community, to communicate with family, and don’t be afraid that friends won’t understand what you’re going through. For those facing cancer, he heartens, “Don’t let it get to you. Don’t stop living.”